Using Storytelling to Engage in Complex Social-Ecological Challenges

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How do we navigate our way through complex challenges and how can storytelling support this process? Julieta Vigliano Relva and Cobra Collective member, Julia Jung, have recently published an article that explores this key question. This blog post is a brief summary of the article which can be freely accessed here.

Our current times are complicated and contradictory. The impacts and need to address the climate and biodiversity crisis are becoming increasingly more clear and urgent with unprecedented environmental disasters and widespread environmental degradation. At the same time, there is high divergence and polarisation in terms of values, worldviews and perspectives between people. The most pressing issues we face at the moment are situations that seem intractable without a clearly defined problem that can be solved and conflicting visions about what possible solutions could look like. Instead, many current social-ecological conflicts are made up of a mess of conflicting narratives and worldviews, where truth and reality itself are often contested. Effectively engaging in those situations requires approaches that can surface and hold space for multiple worldviews of the different stakeholders in the situation.

Many of those conflicts can be traced back to fundamentally different ways of thinking about nature and people’s place in it. These various ways of experiencing the world can also be described as different contested narratives on a personal, community and cultural scale. For example, the way we might feel about a fish we catch or the river it comes from is all connected to the story we have about what the river or the fish mean to us. Is fishing perhaps a communal activity that we do with others and that strengthens our bond with our community by sharing this experience? Is fishing simply a sporting activity we do alone to show off our skill or to be able to sustain ourselves? Do we even go fishing or does it matter where our food comes from? How we feel about different elements in our life is closely linked to the internal story we have about them. Those stories, as shown in Figure 1, also shape our understanding of nature and our resulting worldview.

Fig 1: Differences in the biocentric and anthropocentric ethic as shown in the internal narrative and resulting worldview.

Stories also help us navigate our place in the world. They are a crucial way of making sense of the world around us and to construct our sense of personal identity through stories about our home, community and the place we grew up in. They help us to organise our life story into meaningful patterns, and can help us to capture, process and share things that happened to us. On a community level, they create and reinforce a shared understanding of a place and build a shared social memory that strengthens a community’s social cohesion. As shown in Figure 2, narratives in this way reinforce and shape our value system, and ultimately also our attitudes and behaviour, but listening to someone’s stories can also be a way to elicit those narratives and to gain more insight into their point of view.

Fig 2: The iceberg metaphor visualises the way a persons’ underlying value system shapes their identity, definition of community, attitudes and exhibited behaviours. Narratives play an important role here by shaping, eliciting, and reinforcing those underlying value systems.

In more poetic terms, this ongoing cycle is beautifully described by Rebecca Solnit:

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or hate, to see or be seen. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then become a story-teller”

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Narratives are one way of seeing the world and there are multitudes of overlapping stories and narratives within each of us. Under certain circumstances some cultural narratives can become dominant and overshadow others. In doing this, stories can perpetuate existing inequalities and power differences and reinforce oppressive structures. This is because narratives can feed into knowledge production systems and can legitimise certain types of knowledge over others. One example of this is the way Western scientific knowledge has long been favoured over Indigenous knowledge. Western scientific knowledge is often described as the neutral, overarching way of seeing the world and at best Indigenous knowledge is seen as something interesting where we can cherry pick information to integrate into Western scientific knowledge. However, Western science is just one way of viewing the world that stems and reinforces specific cultural narratives. For example, the fast and widespread development of market-based approaches used in natural sciences for conservation purposes, such as payment for ecosystem services, or the use of terms like natural capital imply a strong connection between economics and nature that, although claimed to be used for strategical purposes, also reflect and reproduce the anthropocentric ethics intrinsic to modernity and the science that has stemmed from it. There is no neutral way of viewing the world – or in the words of Donna Haraway no ‘view from nowhere’, as we are all influenced by our own very specific set of narratives as shown in Figure 3.

Fig. 3: Indigenous and Western scientific knowledge as two different co-existing ways of viewing the world.

Therefore, we need to carefully listen to, reflect on and identify our own narratives to become aware of our biases and the way they influence our perception of the world as demonstrated in Figure 4.

Fig 4: Becoming aware of the influence of one’s internal narrative and value system on our perception of reality through engaging in critical self-reflection.

This is especially important for conservationists and environmental scientists with a Western scientific background to avoid perpetuating the oppression of other knowledge systems and move towards a world of knowledge co-existence. Holding space for different ways of knowing is not only an ethical imperative, but can also offer a broader range of local responses and adaptations to address the climate and biodiversity crisis. For example, studies with Inuit of the Arctic region have demonstrated how their use of experiential information and reflection has led to new insights about the Greenland shark and its role in the marine environment. Their knowledge was found to be more detailed than current scientific knowledge, but was also embedded in a more holistic understanding of the environment.

Therefore, considering a plurality of knowledges with their respective approaches and worldviews broadens the set of tools, and provides more adequate ones to face the complexity and diversity of current social-ecological issues. This is especially crucial in marine systems, where the complexity and therefore the amount of contested interests are expected to increase as oceans are promoted as the new economic frontier for development. Taking a narrative lens can allow us to truly listen, gaining a deeper understanding of the situations at hand and empathising with others. This also allows us to reflect on our own narratives, which opens the path to multiple ways of knowing and a more just world.

Julia Jung
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Marine Social Scientist

Julia holds an MSc in management of marine biological resources from the international IMBRSea programme (2020). She is interested in using participatory approaches and action research for community-based environmental management. Julia is also highly interested in the use of technology for outreach, innovation and teaching within communities and in higher education.